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A vanity press or vanity publisher is a term describing a publishing house in which authors pay to have their books published. The term appears in mainstream U.S. publications as early as 1941. In contrast, mainstream publishers, whether major companies or small presses, derive their profit from sales of the book to the general public. Publishers must therefore be cautious and deliberate in choosing to publish works that will sell, particularly as they must recoup their investment in the book (such as an advance payment and royalties to the author, editorial guidance, promotion, marketing, or advertising). In order to sell books, commercial publishers may also be selective in order to cultivate a reputation for high-quality work, or to specialize in a particular genre.
Because vanity presses are not selective, publication by a vanity press is typically not seen as conferring the same recognition or prestige as commercial publication. Vanity presses do offer more independence for the author than does the mainstream publishing industry; however, their fees can be higher than the fees normally charged for similar printing services, and sometimes restrictive contracts are required.
While a commercial publisher's intended market is the general public, a vanity publisher's intended market is the author and a very small number of interested members of the general public. In some cases, authors of a book that is vanity published will buy a substantial number of copies of their book, so that they can give it away as a promotional tool.
Differences from mainstream and self-publishers
The term "vanity press" is sometimes considered pejorative and is often used to imply that an author who uses such a service is only publishing out of vanity and that his or her work could not be commercially successful. In other words, a work published by a vanity press is typically assumed to be unpublishable elsewhere or not publishable on a timely basis.
Some companies offer printing (and, very rarely, limited distribution) for a fee. Such services can be a viable way for an author to self-publish without owning printing equipment. This is particularly attractive to an author of a work with a limited, specialized appeal which may not interest mainstream publishers, or to the author who intends to promote his or her work personally. Self-publishing is distinct from vanity publishing since the author retains responsibility for the whole process, although they may hire expertise for certain tasks (such as cover art, editing, or formatting. Self-publishers do not pay to have their books published, while vanity publishers do.
A mainstream publisher traditionally assumes the risk of publication and production costs, selects the works to be published, edits the author's text, and provides for marketing and distribution, provides the ISBN and satisfies whatever legal deposit and copyright registration formalities are required. Such a publisher normally pays the author a fee, called an advance, for the right to publish the author's work; and further payments, called royalties, based on the sales of the work. This led to James D. Macdonald's famous dictum, "Money should always flow toward the author" (sometimes called Yog's Law).
Presses that cater to self-publishers typically do little or no marketing. Formerly, they did little or no distribution. Today, vanity publishers may offer web-based sales, or make a book available via online booksellers, but they generally provide no marketing.
Poets often self-publish as their work is generally of extremely specialized appeal and therefore risky to mainstream publishers.
Among the many types of books that are unpublishable by major commercial presses, family histories often find their way onto vanity presses, since family histories have an extremely limited market.
With vanity publishing, authors pay to have their books published. Because the author is paying to have the book published, the book doesn't go through an approval or editorial process as it would in a traditional setting where the publisher takes a financial risk on the author's ability to write successfully. Editing and formatting services may or may not be offered and they may come with the initial publishing fee (or more correctly, printing fee) or might be offered at an additional cost.
Self-publishers undertake the functions of a publisher for their own books. Some "self-publishers" write, edit, design, lay out, market, and promote their books themselves, relying on a printer only for actual printing and binding. Others write the manuscript themselves but hire freelance professionals to provide editing and production services.
More recently, companies have offered their services to act as a sort of agent between the writer and a small printing operation.
A slightly more sophisticated model of a vanity press is described by Umberto Eco in Foucault's Pendulum. The company that provides initial setting for the novel operates a small yet respectable arts and humanities publishing house as a front. It does not make a profit but it brings a steady flow of substandard authors. They are politely rejected and then referred to another publishing firm in the same office – the vanity press that will print anything for money. This was surprisingly similar to the business model adopted by Harlequin Horizons.
Some companies make use of print on demand technologies based on modern digital printing. These companies are often able to offer their services with little or no upfront cost to the author, but they are still considered vanity presses by writers' advocates. Vanity presses earn their money not from sales of books to readers, as other publishers do, but from sales and services to the books' authors. The author receives the shipment of his or her books and may attempt to resell them through whatever channels are available.
Writers considering self-publishing often also consider directly hiring a printer. According to self-publisher and poet Peter Finch, vanity presses charge higher premiums and create a risk that an author who has published with a vanity press will have more difficulty working with a respectable publisher in the future.
Some vanity presses using print on demand technology act as printers as well as sellers of support services for authors interested in self-publishing. Reputable firms of this type are typically marked by clear contract terms, lack of excessive fees, retail prices comparable to those from commercial printers, lack of pressure to purchase "extra" services, contracts that do not claim exclusive rights to the work being published (though one would be hard pressed to find a legitimate publisher willing to put out a competing edition, making nonexclusivity meaningless), and honest indications of what services they will and won't provide, and what results the author may reasonably expect. However, the distinction between the worst of these firms and vanity presses is essentially trivial, though a source of great confusion as the low fees have attracted tens of thousands of authors who want to avoid the stigma of vanity publishing while doing just that.
Libraries often choose books by the application of a collection development policy designed to meet the needs of a particular user community. When libraries accept the products of a vanity press, they may require the donor to sign a form giving to the library the right to do what it pleases with the items, including disposing of them or redonating them.
Vanity publishing in other media
The vanity press model has been extended to other media. Some companies produce videos, music, and other works with less perceived commercial potential in exchange for a fee from the creators of those works. In some cases, the company may contribute original content to the works (e.g., supplying lyrics for a melody). A notable example is ARK Music Factory, which produced and released Rebecca Black's 2011 viral video "Friday".
These variants on the vanity press theme are still much less common than the traditional, book-based vanity press.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was common for legitimate authors, if they could afford it, to pay the costs of publishing their books. Such writers could expect more control of their work, greater profits, or both. Among such authors were Lewis Carroll, who paid the expenses of publishing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and most of his subsequent work. Mark Twain, E. Lynn Harris, Zane Grey, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Rice Burroughs, George Bernard Shaw, Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Anaïs Nin also self-published some or all of their works. Not all of these well-known authors were successful in their ventures; Mark Twain's publishing business, for example, went bankrupt.
Ernest Vincent Wright, author of the 1939 novel Gadsby, famous for being written entirely in lipogram, was unable to find a publisher for his unusual work and ultimately chose to publish it through a vanity press.
- American Biographical Institute
- Dorrance Publishing
- Famous Poets Society
- Ivy House Books 
- Poetry.com, aka The International Library of Poetry
- Tate Publishing & Enterprises (there are at least three companies called Tate Publishing; the others include a reputable art publisher and a defunct software book publisher)
- Vantage Press
- The Memoir Club 
- Author mill
- Custom media
- Open access
- Print on demand
- Vanity award
- Vanity gallery
- Vanity label
- Time Magazine "Books: Literary Rotolactor"
- Lundin, Leigh (2009-05-03). "Crossfire of the Vanities". Self-Publishing. New York: Criminal Brief. "Vanity publishing is like T-ball: Everyone gets a chance at bat, gets a hit, and takes home a trophy. But don’t expect anyone other than your mom to applaud."
- Strauss, Victoria (2009-11-18). "Harlequin Horizons: Another Major Publisher Adds A Self-Publishing Division". Publishing Pitfalls. Writer Beware.
- Steven B. Carrico. "Gifts in academic and special libraries: a selected bibliography". Library Collections, Acquisitions, and Technical Services, Volume 23, Issue 4, Winter 1999, Pages 421-431 (Abstract). Linked on Elsevier ScienceDirect.
- Hundley, Jessica (2011-03-30). "Patrice Wilson of Ark Music: 'Friday' is on his mind". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2011-03-30.
- Caroline Valetkevitch (18 March 2007). "Mark Twain's tries at financial greatness". Reuters / The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2007-06-01.
- Paying for Prestige - the Cost of Recognition
- Span, Paula (23 January 2005). "Making Books". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2013-08-22.
- Bad Art - A verse-case scenario (Boston Phoenix)
- Ron Pramschufer (2 November 2004). "POD Superstar or Vanity Press Deception?". Publishers Newswire/Neotrope.
- Margo Stever, The Contester: Poetry.com Struggles for Legitimacy. Poets and Writers Magazine
- D. T. Max (16 July 2000). "No More Rejections". New York Times.
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